This past November, Christopher Watts, a 33-year-old man from Colorado, pled guilty to the murders of his pregnant wife and their two young daughters. Watts, who in February was sentenced to three life sentences, first denied the allegations and made an emotional plea to find the perpetrators. As investigators noticed discrepancies in Watts’ story and pressed harder, he confessed to the acts and to burying their bodies in the oil fields where he worked.
Recently, Watts provided the grim details in a jailhouse interview; according to Watts, he murdered his family over a matter of hours, and the daughters understood what was happening, and what would befall them, as those hours passed.
The Watts case gained national attention for both the heinousness of the crime and the emotional trajectory of its timeline. As parents, it’s difficult to not copy and paste the faces of our own little ones into the grim, nauseating details and ask what would drive a man to kill his own family?
Anyone who reads or listens to any accounts of the Watts case will hear the popularized term that reporters invoke in their analysis: ‘family annihilators.’
“It’s an unfortunate term,” says Dr. Neil Websdale, director of the Family Violence Institute at Northern Arizona University and author of Familicidal Hearts: The Emotional Styles of 211 Killers,“It’s a melodramatic term. It sells media space and products.”
Family annihilators, in the narrowest definition, are one end of a grisly spectrum: These are people who murder their spouse and their children before committing suicide. In between are familicides, like Watts’, in which the murderer kills their domestic partner and children, but not themselves. The other end of that continuum are murders of wives, girlfriends, or ex-wives and ex-girlfriends by their partners. The common denominator in most of these cases is that the perpetrators are typically men.
“Why?,” asks Richard Gelles, a professor of social policy at the University of Pennsylvania, and an expert in domestic violence and child welfare. “Men are socialized to express themselves using physical force. Men are expected to use physical force. Men are not socialized to resolve problems and control issues using verbal means or psychological means, so that’s part of the underlying explanation.”
According to Websdale, there are 20-25 family annihilations a year. A Washington Post analysis found that in the last decade, 2,051 women were killed by intimate partners, and that in one-third of those cases, the male perpetrators were previously considered dangerous. Gelles estimates that some 90 percent of such intimate homicides include patterns of controlling violence and patterns of domestic abuse in which one partner seeks to control the other, and says those abusive behaviors can ultimately escalate into homicidal acts. Family annihilators may or may not exhibit similar tendencies and behaviors, but this much smaller number of intimate murders is precipitated by a specific event.
“That is not so much control, as shame,” says Gelles. “These guys have somehow come into some shameful event, economically or socially. They want to kill themselves, but they’re so enmeshed in their family system, they choose to take their whole family with them. And those are the cases where the neighbors, when they’re interviewed, say ‘Boy, I’m totally amazed and surprised, I mean, he was a nice, quiet guy. He was the last person in the world I would expect to do it.’”
This is different from murder, non-suicides. In such cases, Gelles says, there is usually a track record — and possibly a police record — of child abuse or domestic violence.
“The big difference between the first type and the second type is the enmeshment, that the offender doesn’t see the family as separate from him,” Gelles says. “He sees the family as one entity. And so, in committing suicide, he commits familial suicide.”
Websdale says that, whether they are familicides or family annihilations — that is, whether or not these cases include suicide — there is a complicated mix of depression, as well as notions of rigidly traditional gender roles that may veer into the territory of domineering behavior, if not outright domestic violence. There are also tendencies towards secrecy in these men, as well as narcissism, notions of grandiosity, sexual jealousy, loneliness, and fears of abandonment.
“These killers are very isolated people, often, and they’re often very depressed people,” Websdale says. “They may not know it, but they are.”
Then comes a crisis. It can be reputational, like a shameful secret being exposed, or it can be economic, like bankruptcy or job loss. This crisis, says Websdale, destabilizes this person’s view of themselves in the traditional role of male protector and provider and power figure, and pushes them to the edge.
“It’s about, I think, failed or compromised masculinity,” Websdale says. “It’s about shame. It’s about a sense of male entitlement sometimes. It’s a sense of misguided altruism.”
Gelles says it’s also about a perceived singularity, the idea that there is no difference between the perpetrator and the family.
“It does involve control, but it’s a different kind of thing, because of this family enmeshment. He really doesn’t see boundaries between his life and his wife’s and his children,” Gelles says. “You could go so far as to say he thinks of ownership of them, but it’s not simply a property ownership, it’s [that] their lives are completely intertwined, there’s no differentiation between his, his wife’s and his children’s.”
With all of that in play, crisis hits, and the perpetrator chooses to protect themselves by destroying themselves, their reputations — and, by extension, in their eyes, their family.
Watts, who allegedly murdered his wife and kids because he wanted a separation and she said he would never get to see the kids again, would fall into the middle of this terrible spectrum — a case of familicide, Gelles says. He couldn’t control her actions, so, presumably, he sought the ultimate form of control.
Despite the similarities between such crimes, Websdale says there are too many things we don’t know and understand about them to come to any easy conclusions, and warns that it is much easier to find those links in retrospect than it is to identify potential risk factors.
“There’s a plethora of possibilities here, but I do think also that we need to face the fact that we’re also dealing with the haunting presence of the inexplicable,” he says. “I think we like, in this age of reason, to think that we can pinpoint a particular cause or factor here or there, and I think the reality is that in these cases, we often can’t.”